Columbia University Medical Center

Columbia ALS Legacy Tied to Baseball Great Lou Gehrig

Lou Gehrig played baseball and football for Columbia between 1921 and 1923.

Lou Gehrig played baseball and football for Columbia University between 1921 and 1923. Photo: Columbia University Archives.

Columbia’s ALS legacy dates back to legendary New York Yankees star Lou Gehrig, the first baseman who made ALS—also called Lou Gehrig’s disease—widely known.

The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig MDA/ALS Multidisciplinary Care Center was founded in the Neurological Institute in 1987 by Lewis P. Rowland, MD, then chairman of neurology, after Eleanor Gehrig, the baseball star’s widow, died in 1984 and left $100,000 to Columbia. The gift was in recognition of a Columbia physician, Caldwell B. Esselstyn (P&S’29), who had cared for Lou Gehrig during his struggle with ALS.

The center, one of 42 MDA/ALS (Muscular Dystrophy Association-designated/ALS) centers in the country, sees approximately 300 new patients annually from the United States and abroad and conducts clinical trials. It also specializes in the care of patients with primary lateral sclerosis and progressive muscular atrophy. Hiroshi Mitsumoto, MD, has been the center’s director since 1999.

Neurologists, nurse practitioners, physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nutritionists, gastroenterologists, and pulmonologists collaborate to help patients maintain the highest functioning possible. The team focuses on the patients’ independence and quality of life during the course of their disease. The center also provides support to patient families and caregivers.

Gehrig, who batted behind Babe Ruth, played 2,130 consecutive baseball games, a record that lasted 56 years. He was elected to the Hall of Fame and twice named the American League’s Most Valuable Player. As a Columbia College student from 1921 to 1923, he played football and baseball for the Lions. He is widely regarded as the greatest student athlete in Columbia’s history.

Lou Gehrig at bat for Columbia in 1922.

Lou Gehrig at bat for Columbia in 1922. Photo: Columbia University Archives.

Gehrig retired from the New York Yankees in 1939 after learning that he had ALS. Eleanor Gehrig devoted herself to him until his death two years later. She dedicated her autobiography about her life with him, “My Luke and I,” to Dr. Esselstyn. A surgeon and accomplished athlete, Esselstyn had been asked to care for Gehrig because of his ties to medicine and sports. He was present at Lou Gehrig’s death at his Bronx home on June 2, 1941.

 

The Gehrig Center at Columbia University Medical Center can be reached at alscenter@columbia.edu or by calling 212-305-1319. For more information about the center, visit: http://www.cumc.columbia.edu/dept/als/.

This has been updated from a piece originally published in Columbia’s medical school magazine.

Also on CUMC News: